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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Eugène REUCHSEL (1900-1988)
La Vie Du Christ [48:41]
Bouquet de France [24:35]
Simon Niemiński (organ)
rec. St.Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, 2017 RESONUS RES10217 [74:10]
The organ music of Eugène Reuchsel has held a deep fascination for me ever since I was sent pre-publication review copies of his Evocation de Louis Vierne and Images de Provence for review in the mid-1980s and instantly fell under the spell of this atmospheric, post-Impressionist, and decidedly un-ecclesiastical writing for the instrument. As Nigel Simeone points out in his meticulously researched booklet notes, Reuchsel “is conspicuous by his absence from most musical reference works”, and public performances of his music are so rare that, in a life which sees me attending more organ recitals than is probably good for me, the only time I ever hear his music live is when I attempt to play it myself. So far as I can make out, apart from a couple of recordings issued around 20 years ago (one from Thomas Daniel Schlee who is responsible for the bulk of the biographical detail we have on Reuchsel) and an astonishing set of six discs released on an Austrian label a few years back featuring the entire organ output of all four composer members of what it describes as “the Reuchsel Dynasty”, British organist (now based at Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral) Simon Niemiński is the first seriously to survey Eugène Reuchsel’s music on disc; although his first disc devoted to the composer appeared on the Pro Organo label way back in 2000, so perhaps to call this a “survey” is going a bit over the top.
Reuchsel’s writing is thoroughly imbued in the French late-romantic tradition, focusing on colourful organ tone and sumptuous harmonies. It lacks aggression or excitement; even the few fast movements (such as “Ma Mère m’envoi-t-au Marché” from Bouquet de France) have none of that virtuoso display feel that we find in Dupré or Duruflé. And its harmonic language is luxurious and comfortable rather than challenging and exploratory – apart, that is, from a surprising series of stark open fifths heard in “Le Crucifiement” from La Vie du Christ. Almost all the 29 individual movements on this disc (which, curiously, last around the same length – the shortest at 1:10 very much an exception to an average which floats around the 2:45 mark) feature Reuchsel’s hallmark style of an uninterrupted series of sumptuous chords, moving at moderate pace and largely bereft of distinguishing rhythmic features. The carol Il est né, le divin enfant appears in “La Nativité” from La Vie di Christ, while Bouquet de France is built on 10 traditional French folk songs (with the Berceuse calling to mind, curiously, that 1960s hit for Petula Clark, “Downtown”). But these melodies are invariably embedded so deeply within the texture that they often seem almost incidental to Reuchsel’s chief interest in creating an atmosphere which is both pictorially descriptive and atmospheric. There is something evocative about all this music which does not just conjure up images, but invokes both sensual and sensorial stimulation.
Simon Niemiński is thoroughly attuned to this music, and presents magical performances, clearly undaunted by its enormous technical demands - demands which never impinge on the listener’s consciousness; Niemiński never once lets on that this music is actually extremely difficult to play. More particularly, he clearly fully understands what Reuchsel is trying to say in his music. His innate feel for registration (Reuchsel was not primarily an organist and his scores give only the most generic registration indications) allows the music to sound fully at home on the splendid Rieger organ at St Giles Cathedral.
Anyone with a knowledge of Edinburgh will tell you that to record in the heart of the city around Festival time is to risk a clash with the crowds and sounds of revellers and buskers. That seems to have been the case here for, while the outstanding recorded sound is mercifully free of outside influence, a tiny comment buried deep in the booklet points out that “an anonymous bagpiper” outside St Giles Cathedral during the recording sessions had to be lured away with “a modest bribe”. No bagpipes, but a wonderfully festival spirit about this recording which celebrates all that is glorious about the organ in late summertime.
Back in 1986 I wrote that Reuchsel’s music would “rapidly gain a foothold in a recital repertory sadly lacking new voices from France”. I was wrong, and while I certainly echo Simeone’s puzzlement that “Reuchsel is not far better known”, I am not naïve enough to think that a magnificent recording such as this will make any difference. However, I would urge anyone of any musical persuasion, whether or not the organ is their thing, to get hold of this. The music is marvellous, the playing is wonderful and the recording superb.
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